Section 2 /
New York Notebook

Two jabs and I can get back to the land of Percy Pigs

Holly Baxter ponders the differences between the US and UK rollout and dreams of flying home for buttered crumpets 

The US favours the ‘sit down, shut up, get out’ approach to mass vaccination

The vaccine wars have been going on in Europe for a while – what with Brexit bans, blood clot notices and intra-EU procurement struggles – but they’re only just heating up in my social group out here in NYC. The state of New York only has a certain amount of vaccine released from the federal government every month, and it’s made its own rules off the back of that. Some smaller states like New Mexico and Alaska have managed to fully vaccinate just under 30 per cent of their populations with ambitious rollouts focusing on age; New York, one of the most populous states in the country, is lower down the list at 22 per cent, and decides its vaccines based on factors including where you work and who you are. Obese childminders, pregnant waitresses and people with asthma who work at food banks go right to the front of the queue, for instance. If you’re an office worker and you don’t have a pulmonary disorder, you’re unlikely to be seen by the summer. Age categories work alongside these criteria but currently in New York, only the over-60s qualify for a vaccine if they have no other qualifying condition or employment situation. In contrast, if you live in Texas or Mississippi, you can waltz in at age 50; in Arizona and Alaska, jabs are open to anyone over the age of 16.

You don’t need me to tell you that New York City is a tourist magnet, and there’s ambition to reach enough vaccine spread in the population to allow tourism to return in 2021. At the current pace, CDC data suggests 90 per cent of the US population will be vaccinated by early August. Seventy per cent could have some level of immunity by the end of June. As the March weather outside my window yo-yos between -5C and snowy (today) and 20C and sunny (two days ago), June has started to feel tantalisingly close. Though E and I just had to postpone our wedding for the second time (September 2020 moved to May 2021, and now October 2021), we’re getting a distinct “light at the end of the tunnel” feeling.

Obese childminders, pregnant waitresses and people with asthma who work at food banks go right to the front of the queue for a jab in this city

Since people are starting to get their shots in the arm, it’s become inevitable that comparisons are being made. Two of my friends had the Pfizer jab last week; two others in the UK had the Oxford-AstraZeneca one, which is yet to be approved here in the States. I’ve been texting them all for updates on their health: do their arms ache? Did they have to spend the day in bed? Have they developed a sudden and unexplained love of Bill Gates and 5G? One of my other friends went for the one-shot Johnson and Johnson jab and spent three days in bed with chills and a fever, but my mum and dad both bounced out of the chemist after AstraZeneca. Trying to read anything into people’s side effects is a bit like reading tea leaves.

The pictures I’ve been sent of people receiving their vaccines have also laid bare the transatlantic divide. In New York, 24-hour repurposed conference centres are manned by the army and take a “sit down, shut up, get out” approach toward the jabs. Those images jar strangely with others of friendly sit-downs in local GP surgeries around the UK. When it comes to it, I’ll probably be a recipient of an MRNA vaccine by Moderna or Pfizer, because of the borough in which I live. They appear to give 90-95 per cent protection, which puts them above AstraZeneca. Then again, the side effects are often said to be worse. And new variants seem to change the narrative every few minutes. Everyone now has a tale about why their vaccine is the best one, or the most future-proof.

Ultimately, of course, my little group of expats is just happy that we might be able to fly home safely in the future. In the background of those vaccine pics, whenever I see a red postbox, a black-and-white street sign or a single-storey local surgery, I feel a nostalgic twinge of recognition. If one little vaccine can help me get back to the land of Percy Pigs and buttered crumpets this year, I’ll take it – whether it’s AstraZeneca, Moderna, Sputnik V or anything in between.